LIFE IN CHRIST
MAN’S VOCATION LIFE IN THE SPIRIT
THE HUMAN COMMUNITY
PARTICIPATION IN SOCIAL LIFE
Listers, the given section from the Catechism of the Catholic Church has been reproduced in its entirety.
The emphasis, comments, and questions have been added.
1. Does Human Society Need Political Authority?
1897. “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.”15
By “authority” one means the quality by virtue of which persons or institutions make laws and give orders to men and expect obedience from them.
Well-ordered is a Catholic political buzzword that refers to the virtuous ordering of human society. The Cardinal Virtue that deals with proper ordering is Justice. In Aristotle’s Politics, he notes that “virtue of justice is a thing belonging to the city.” Pope Benedict XVI has reiterated in his encyclicals that Justice is the highest virtue of the city, and it is by Justice – a natural virtue – that humanity society is properly ordered.1
2. Is Political Authority Natural?
1898. Every human community needs an authority to govern it.16 The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.
Human beings are political animals. Returning to Politics, Aristotle teachings the “city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.” Man as a social and political animal by his own nature is a fundamental Catholic belief. In paragraph 1879, the CCC states, “the human person needs to live in society. Society is not an extraneous or external addition, but a requirement of his nature.” In gist, human society is just as natural as the forest.2
3. Is Political Order God Ordained?
1899. The authority required by the moral order derives from God:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”17
God creates Nature. Nature demands authority. Authority is God given. Man is by nature a political animal inhabiting natural societies structured according to the natural need for hierarchy. A well-ordered society allows its citizens to live well. However, society can only be well-ordered if the order of the governing agents is heeded. We should also note that a vicious leader is unnatural.3
4. How Should One Pray for Political Authorities?
1900. The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.
Humanity has a moral obligation to obey the human laws of society. According to St. Thomas, Human Law should specify Natural Law, e.g., Natural Law prohibits murder, thus Human Law specifies murder into gradient categories in order to be just to various situations. However, though God created man as a political animal, society as a natural community, and hierarchy as natural to man, man is still capable of vice; thus, the God ordained office may be held and operated unjustly. It is then incredibly important to pray for political leaders and their duty to order society.
Pope St. Clement of Rome provides the Church’s most ancient prayer for political authorities:18
“Grant to them, Lord, health, peace, concord, and stability, so that they may exercise without offense the sovereignty that you have given them. Master, heavenly King of the ages, you give glory, honor, and power over the things of earth to the sons of men. Direct, Lord, their counsel, following what is pleasing and acceptable in your sight, so that by exercising with devotion and in peace and gentleness the power that you have given to them, they may find favor with you.”19
5. Is Democracy the Only Acceptable Form of Government?
1901. If authority belongs to the order established by God, “the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens.”20
The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them. Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.
The purpose of law is to help cultivate virtue in citizens. Human society is natural and the virtues are habits that perfect man’s nature. However, both Sts. Augustine and Aquinas agreed that human society will always fall short of perfect justice. This is not only due to the fact Human Law cannot know the heart of man – a reason why Divine Law is needed – but also because not all men are virtuous.
St. Thomas warns that if society tries to mandate virtue disproportionately to its citizens, they will rebel and commit greater vices. Consequently, since all human societies will be imperfect, any form of government that orders itself according to natural law, virtuous order, and the natural rights – as seen by Natural Law – of its citizens is acceptable. To be clear, there is no utopia or utopian government is Catholic political thought.
6. What Makes a Law Just or Unjust?
1902. Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a “moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility”:21
A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.22
St. Aquinas avers, law is “nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” Again, laws and political authorities are not artificial or willful creations of men, but principles and offices rooted in Natural Law. If they break that connection, then the law is unreasonable, unnatural, and unjust.
7. Can a Catholic Break an Unjust Law?
1903. Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, “authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.”23
However, prudence – the virtue of right reasoning, the “elective habit” – is incredibly needed in said situations, because our societies have (1) drifted far away from nature as a whole and (2) have given citizens an avenue for peaceful political change. It is clear, however, that if the unjust law commanded a sinful – thus unreasonable and unnatural – action, e.g., mandated birth control or abortion, then one simply cannot follow the law. It would also follow that if society tried to legalize something unnatural, e.g., homosexual marriage, that too would fall short of being a proper law.
8. What Basic Guidelines Govern Human Society?
1904. “It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men.”24
The Church gives two basic guidelines for the myriad of possible governments: (1) a balance of power and (2) a realization that Human Law, as specifications of Natural Law, cannot be reduced to the mere will of the ruler(s).
- Natural Virtues: Justice is a “natural virtue,” which means that all men are capable of habituating themselves according to its principles, even if they are not Catholic. The Natural Virtues (Cardinal) are Prudence, Justice, Temperance, & Fortitude. In contrast, the Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope, & Charity – are revealed to man and are given to him via grace. [↩]
- Political Animal: Another key concept in understanding man as a political animal – and his society – is observation that hierarchy is natural to man. Left to his own, humanity will always assemble itself in a hierarchy in order for society to function – regardless of whether that be a democracy or monarchy. [↩]
- The Cosmic City: Here the well-ordered city is set within the ordered cosmos of God. The city is ordered according to nature, and nature itself is ordered by God. St. Thomas Aquinas goes into great depth in Summa Theologica I-II.90-108 to show that Natural Law, Human Law, Divine Law (Scripture), and Eternal Law (God’s wisdom moving all things toward their end) constitute a harmonious ordered cosmos. [↩]